Emotional Regulation – Importance, Examples, and Strategies

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage emotions, also known as self-regulation.

Being able to regulate emotions is a skill, meaning that people often learn emotional regulation as they grow up. Some people may find it easier than others to regulate their emotions. 

Emotional regulation reflects a set of processes that influence:

  • Which emotions someone has
  • When they have these emotions
  • How they experience and express these emotions

Emotional regulation is not to be confused with eliminating or controlling emotions but with moderating the experience of the emotions being experienced. This includes the ability to alter the intensity or duration of an emotion rather than changing it completely. 

Being able to moderate the intensity of the emotion can help to control behavior and emotional reactions. 

When an emotion is felt, for example, anger, this can be triggered when feeling threatened or powerless. 

calm woman holding balloons with emotion

Someone who is skilled in emotional regulation will recognize that they have a need to deal with the threat by either internally changing their thoughts, setting a boundary, or feeling empowered. They are less likely to feel ‘out of control’ by their emotions. 

Why is emotional regulation important?

Being able to regulate emotions is important since our emotions are closely connected to how we think and feel. Our thoughts and feelings help us to decide how best to respond to a situation and what action we should take. Essentially, emotional regulation can influence behavior. 

Learning skills to regulate our emotions means that, instead of acting impulsively and doing something that may be regretted later, we are able to make thought-out choices.

This can mean that we can learn to manage relationships with others, problem-solve, and have better control over our mental health.

If our emotions are shut down or avoided, we may struggle with powerlessness, negative thinking, ruminating, resentment, and increased frustration. This could result in the development of anxiety, depression, or physical complaints. 

Examples of common emotion regulation strategies

Below are some of the common healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation strategies that people use:

Healthy strategies

These can include the following:

  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness
  • Engaging in therapy
  • Talking through emotions with friends
  • Writing in a journal
  • Noticing when a break is needed – having some space from others 
  • Having good sleep hygiene 

Unhealthy strategies 

These can include the following:

  • Self-injurious behaviors
  • Alcohol and substance abuse 
  • Emotional eating
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from difficult situations
  • Excessive use of social media to the exclusion of other responsibilities 
  • Withdrawing from others – social isolation 

What causes poor emotional regulation?

Having poor emotional regulation often comes from childhood. Below are some possible causes for why someone may struggle with regulating their emotions:


A temperament is mainly determined by genetic inheritance and is stable across time and situations. It may be possible that some children develop poor emotional regulation due to their temperament. 

Differences in temperament can be observable very early in life. Some infants are calm and even-tempered, while others tend to have more intense and longer stress reactions which may contribute to poorer emotional regulation. 


Trauma is described as the experience of catastrophic affect an individual cannot process, understand, and/or integrate. The overwhelming intensity of feelings can automatically freeze or shut down consciousness.

Many people who experience trauma, especially as a child, are likely to have poor emotional regulation. Someone who experiences trauma may have inflexible strategies to help with emotions – often one way of reacting to negative emotions. 

The more trauma someone has experienced as a child, such as experiencing or witnessing abuse, the more likely they are to have severe emotional dysregulation. 

Attachment styles

Having a secure attachment with caregivers is thought to be essential to building emotional regulation. 

Caregivers who displayed inconsistent parenting, were shut down, emotionally unavailable, or showed extreme emotional reactions might be more likely to have passed these traits on to their children. 

Those with an insecure attachment style may have learned from their parents to either express their emotions in extreme ways or be discouraged from showing their emotions completely.

These learned behaviors can transcend into adulthood and mean that these individuals do not know how to regulate their emotions in healthy ways. 

Related disorders

Poor emotion regulation in childhood may increase the likelihood of developing other mental health disorders. Likewise, having a neurodevelopmental condition may come with symptoms associated with poorer emotional regulation.

The following conditions can involve some difficulties with emotional regulation:

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

People with this disorder often have emotional sensitivity, heightened and changeable negative moods, a deficit of appropriate regulation strategies, and a surplus of maladaptive regulation strategies.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)

This condition is often diagnosed in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced trauma such as violence, neglect, or abuse. In CPTSD, emotion regulation involves difficulty self-calming when distressed and chronic emotional numbing. 

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)

This childhood condition can involve experiencing extreme moods and intense temper outbursts. There is often a lot of anger with this condition, irritability, and strong behaviors in response to negative emotions. 

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)

Poor emotional regulation is a common symptom of autism. Individuals often have greater or more intense baseline levels of negative emotions or irritability, have poorer problem-solving skills, can become easily overstimulated, and may find it harder to detect other people’s emotions. 

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Poor emotional regulation is a key symptom of ADHD. Individuals with this disorder may have strong reactions to small setbacks, feel their emotions more intensely than others, have difficulty calming down, and have a low tolerance for frustration or annoyance. 

What is emotion dysregulation?

Emotion dysregulation is the inability to use healthy strategies to diffuse or moderate negative emotions.

It is common for people to occasionally use less-than-ideal emotional regulation strategies. However, individuals who regularly experience overwhelming, intense, negative emotions are much more likely to rely on unhealthy strategies. 

Imagine a scenario where one of your friends does not turn up for a pre-arranged lunch with you. Instead of considering the many reasonable explanations for why this happened, this event can trigger feelings of hurt or abandonment for someone with emotional dysregulation.

They may feel intense anger or resentment, resulting in acting on these emotions, such as shouting at the friend, accusing them of being a bad friend, or withdrawing from the friendship. 

In a distressing situation, someone with inadequate emotion regulation skills experiences distress related to negative emotions and a lack of control over their emotions.

When acting on our dysregulated emotions, we can end up behaving in ways that overwhelm us further, meaning we can get stuck in a vicious emotional cycle. 

Someone with dysregulated emotions may:

  • Have reduced awareness and understanding of their emotions
  • Have the inability to inhibit impulsive behaviors
  • Have heightened, labile negative emotions
  • Have high sensitivity to emotions in a social context

Some of the common behaviors of someone with emotion dysregulation include:

  • Dissociating 
  • Numbing
  • Rage
  • Violent outbursts
  • Impulsive, reckless behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Avoidance 
  • Self-injurious behaviors 

The cycle of distress

Wanting to minimize or avoid strong and negative emotions is part of what is often called a ‘cycle of shame.’ This pattern often looks like the Experimental Avoidance Model by Chapman, Gratz, & Brown (2006). 

This model explains that self-harm is primarily maintained by negative reinforcement in the form of escape or avoidance of unwanted emotional experiences.

This effectively levels out the rollercoaster of emotions until the next time. This can be applied to any unhelpful coping strategy that people use instead of regulating their emotions. 

When people use these unhelpful strategies, they do not feel good about using them despite their short-term effectiveness. These tend to add to a larger sense of shame or failure that sets the stage for the whole process to begin again. This is how it can become a vicious cycle. 

Breaking the distress cycle

Changing any part of the cycle can interfere with the pattern and lead to more positive thoughts and feelings. 

Techniques such as those employed in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn how to understand and work with the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

Learn to pay attention to the way the thought-emotion-behavior relationship works for you, then ask yourself some questions:

  • What specific thoughts are triggering for you?
  • Which emotions are the hardest to tolerate?
  • What behaviors do you use to calm down?
  • How well do these behaviors work in the short and long term?
  • What underlying beliefs do you have about yourself, others, or life in general that tend to influence the negative cycle?
  • Alternatively, what thoughts and beliefs do you have that assist you most in generating positive feelings? 

It is important to note that there can be a variety of strategies that are used to deal with emotions, even overwhelming ones. What happens most often is that these strategies are not applied flexibly, and someone may use the same unhelpful strategy in every negative situation.

Putting effort into questioning what thoughts you have and what coping strategies you gravitate towards are an essential step toward ending the distress cycle. 

Strategies for regulating emotions

Below are some steps you can take to help you regulate your emotions:

1. Name the emotion

Attempting to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings can actually result in more unwanted negative thoughts and feelings.

Rather than avoiding unpleasant emotions, acknowledge their presence and name them specifically. It can be helpful to say out loud or think to yourself, ‘I am feeling sad/angry/afraid.

If you are uncertain about what emotion you are feeling, then you can use a ‘Feelings Wheel,’ which displays many of the primary and secondary emotions that one may feel. 

Naming the emotion often leads to the emotion losing its power. It can allow us to let go of some of the pain and discomfort that accompany the unpleasant emotion.

2. Recognize and understand the emotion

It makes sense to believe that people who are unclear about their emotions are also less aware and less clear about their psychological needs. 

A way in which you can become more aware of what you are feeling is to pay attention to what you are experiencing physiologically in your body. For instance, you may have an unsettled feeling in your stomach when feeling anxious, or you may feel a tightness in your chest if you are feeling sad. 

3. Validate the emotion

It is key to recognize that your emotions are present for a valid reason and that they are telling you something. 

Practice self-compassion and give yourself support for the unpleasant emotions you are experiencing. Understand that feeling strong negative emotions are a normal part of life. 

Try to breathe into the experience of your emotion. You can soothe hurt feelings by placing a hand over your body where you feel this experience, then breathe slowly into this area. 

Inquire within as to whether there may be something you can do to address this feeling without any expectation that something needs to be done. 

4. Identify and resolve emotional triggers

Often, we may have an interpretation of a situation that can trigger a strong emotional reaction. To help with regulating our emotions, it is key to learn to recognize emotional triggers.

By identifying triggers, you can address the underlying issue and change your emotional response. Remember that you always have a choice on how to respond and what to do with the information you have. 


Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review30(2), 217-237.

Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Brown, M. Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self-harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour research and therapy44(3), 371-394.

Dunn, E. C., Nishimi, K., Gomez, S. H., Powers, A., & Bradley, B. (2018). Developmental timing of trauma exposure and emotion dysregulation in adulthood: Are there sensitive periods when trauma is most harmful?. Journal of affective disorders227, 869-877.

Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation: Current status and future prospects. Psychological inquiry26(1), 1-26.

McRae, K., & Gross, J. J. (2020). Emotion regulation. Emotion20(1), 1.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.